Grasse is truly the Mecca of the fragrance world. The pretty Provencal town nestled between the Mediterranean and the mountains is at the centre of the French flower growing region. While many companies source or synthesise their perfume ingredients elsewhere, Grasse jasmine and rose de mai are prized above all others.
These two flowers are at the heart of Chanel fragrances and to uphold its heritage the company maintains control of its own flower fields and buys a fair chunk of the area's production. It has the reputation of the world's most famous fragrance, Chanel No 5, to safeguard.
The Grasse jasmine harvest is under way now, with 7000 flowers needed to yield a kilo of jasmine.
Late spring is the northern season when the May rose is harvested at dawn. Women, some from families who have been travelling to Grasse for many generations, place the roses in hessian bags for speedy local processing. (The fragile jasmine flowers are delicately carried in baskets.)
To secure its supply of these blooms for its 90-year-old signature scent, Chanel has worked for five generations with one family of growers, the Muls.
Rose pickers bring in 50-70 tonnes of rosa centifolia blooms for processing, with 350-400 flowers yielding one kilogram of petals. Experienced pickers can gather up to 7kg of flowers an hour.
The sheltered location of Grasse and its rich mix of clay and chalk soils create an ideal hothouse for flower-growing. The town is home to many old parfumeries and it is still the training ground for the lucrative global fragrance industry's famed "noses", who must learn to distinguish many hundreds of scents.
Among the alumini are Les Nez of Chanel, Jacques Polge and Christopher Sheldrake.
Sheldrake, an Englishman whose earliest scent memories are of early years in India and morning mist in English gardens, credits his internship in Grasse with giving him a love for "the history and unique life of each raw material".
One of his favourite smell associations, he tells Viva, is jasmine at midnight. (Grasse jasmine, introduced by the Moors, differs from that now obtained in Asia and Africa for perfumery because it is the result of jasmine grandiflorum grafted on to jasmine officinalis. It is nearly 20 times as expensive as a jasmine absolute when the concentrated essence is obtained elsewhere.)
Sheldrake first joined Chanel in 1980 for three years, leaving to work at Quest with Serge Lutens. He developed many Lutens scents and spent time in Japan. He returned to Chanel in 2005 as director of research and development and is co-credited with Polge as creator of a number of Les Exclusifs scents.
Polge has been the house's perfumer since 1978, and created Coco, Cristalle, Allure, Coco Mademoiselle, Chance, the version of Chanel No.5 known as Eau Premiere and the new No 19 Poudre. The men enjoy rare bonuses in what was once an essentially solitary craft, but is now much commercialised and generally highly moderated by marketers - they are given time to develop new scents and they have a sounding board in each other.
"It is a business that is very competitive so it is rare for a fellow perfumer to share their creative ideas," says Sheldrake.
"However, as Jacques Polge says, two noses are better than one.
"We both have our own point of view. We do not always agree with each other but having discussed the subject, we agree on a solution. We are constantly learning from each other, from each other's point of view."
Sheldrake explains to Viva how Grasse is at the centre of keeping a legend alive.
What does the original No. 5 signify to you? How would you describe it to someone who had never smelled it before?
The original No. 5 is a very refined work of art which at the same time has the advantage of not having any key ingredients which have become dated. It is also an historical event because it was certainly the first fragrance that had an abstract feel which could have been unreassuring but was the opposite. And I would just add following on in time, other fragrances were created in the same family which today no longer exist simply because Chanel is the only company who for 90 years has been able to maintain its fragrance to its optimum potential.
Chanel's approach to fragrance - keeping it in-house and owning its own perfume fields - is very different from many houses; what does this bring to your work?
Establishing a relationship with the farmers in Grasse to develop our own jasmine fields was the beginning of an activity which has become increasingly important for Chanel. It was necessary to conserve and increase the jasmine production in France which otherwise would have disappeared by now. This was necessary to maintain the quality of our icon, the Extrait de No. 5. Having the fields in Grasse opened a new aspect to our work which has encouraged perfumers to work more closely with our producers.
Today we have grown the jasmine and the rose de mai to which we added four years ago, our iris palida fields and this year a new tuberose production. To give you an idea of our commitment, by the end of this year we should have finished a two-year planting programme to add 30,000 more rose bushes.
The perfumers are involved and in control of the whole chain from the botany through to the finished product, including the responsibility of working with legislation experts on the safety of our products.
So what makes us different? We are the only fashion house that has always had its own in-house laboratory and perfumers. This gives us the opportunity to consider equally our existing fragrances and the possibility of new creations.
How do you balance being a guardian of Chanel's fragrance heritage, while being tasked with creating a vibrant fragrance future (and a sizeable chunk of the house's revenue)?
We need to know perfectly our tradition to move forward with our creations. Like the traditional fragrances, every new fragrance, every creation follows the same process or the same Chanel philosophy if you like. That is so the fragrance represents an era and not the current fashion.
Does the heritage of the house mean that you can never start with a clean slate?
We can start with a clean slate. For each project, there are many ideas between the perfumers that we dream of. And when you think that a new fragrance can take up to six years to come to fruition, in six years we have many ideas that get worked on and as we get closer to the day when we have to select "the" fragrance, one of our creations will be a more obvious fit for the project.
So the other ideas, remain in the cupboard - in our closely guarded fragrance cupboard.
What benefits has technology brought to perfume?
Since I started in perfumery there have been many advances in technology - by using technology to monitor every stage of the perfuming process can improve the quality. To give you an example, the traditional method for drying ingredients in a warehouse resulted in some portion succumbing to mould. Today, we use an industrial-size humidifier for two days, which allows the ingredients to dry out faster and more efficiently.
How much of the rose and jasmine harvest is used in No. 5? If there was, say, a crop failure what are your back-up resources?
In the case of No. 5 extrait, all the jasmine from Grasse. We have been informed by one of our suppliers that Chanel buys about a third of all production of jasmine which is absolutely unbelievable. We select and stock jasmine for our yearly needs and we always have security stock. In 2010 we had a small crop of jasmine in Grasse but had sufficient security stocks in storage.
Is it important to you to smell the roses?
Much inspiration comes from smelling natural products like the rose. It is not essential to smell the rose every harvest for the sake of inspiration but it is certainly pleasant.
What is your favourite of the fragrances you have created for Chanel and why?
I like Coromandel from Les Exclusifs range. It has a lovely patchouli note.
Surrounded as you are by scents do you wear fragrance yourself and, if so, do you have a wardrobe of options or a signature scent?
My signature scent is an ambery fragrance I have made for myself. Of course, I can only wear it on weekends. It is natural to have a fragrance wardrobe. A fragrance expresses the way we feel or what we want to communicate.
Chanel No 5 was launched in 1921 when Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel famously picked the bottle labelled No. 5 from among the scents Ernest Beaux was testing. The former perfumer to the court of the Tsar had been tasked with coming up with the world's first designer fragrance. In doing so, he developed what is considered the first "modern" scent.
No 5 is rich in floral notes, but with a sparkling quality from the use of synthetic aldehydes. It remains a bestseller in the prestige market. Its striking top notes are dominated by ylang-ylang from the Comoros, neroli and aldehydes. The heart opens around scents of rose and jasmine, then gives way to vibrating notes of sandalwood, trailed by lingering waves of vanilla and bourbon vetiver. (The new Eau Premiere version is lighter on the ylang ylang and adds a mellowness from vanilla.)
Once the common ingredients of jasmine and may rose are harvested in Grasse, they are placed in large stills for the extraction process. After many hours a "concrete" is obtained and this is distilled to produce flower essences. The essences are sent to the production plant in Compiegne, where Jacques Polge makes an olfactory verification to ensure all is in order. Raw materials are mixed and the fragrance left to mature before bottling, which can be for several months. Only three people know the complete No. 5 recipe.
After packaging, the final step is baudruchage - a traditional technique reserved for the No. 5 parfum. A fine membrane is placed over the neck of the bottle by hand and this is held in place by two rows of black pearl cotton thread to ensure an air and water-tight seal. The addition of a wax stamp with the Chanel double-C seal guarantees the tamper-proof quality of the bottle.
* Chanel No. 5 eau de parfum 100ml costs $270 and Eau Premiere 75ml is $230. Stockists ph 0800 957352. (Les Exclusifs are not available in New Zealand, but are sold in the Sydney flagship store.)